The Austin Chronicle

SXSW Film Review: Self Reliance

By Trace Sauveur, March 12, 2023, 9:10am, Picture in Picture

The premise of SXSW selection Self Reliance is beautifully simple and absurd: Directionless and recently dumped thirtysomething Tommy (Jake Johnson) agrees to take part in a dangerous online reality game show in which he has 30 days to survive being hunted by rogue bounty hunters for a prize of $1 million.

Lucky for him, in this version of The Most Dangerous Game there’s a loophole that states he can only be attacked when alone, which means as long as he keeps in constant uncomfortably close proximity to another person, he’s in no danger. Of course, no one actually believes him.

It’s a wonderful role for the affably charming Johnson, whose endearing everyman relatability takes on a weathered fatigue here in the rut of approaching middle age with no accomplishments to show for it. Though primed with obvious comedic chops as evidenced by his most recognizable role in sitcom New Girl, he also has a history of offering sturdy, more quietly funny and emotional performances (as well as writing credits) in a litany of low-key indie dramedies, like 2021’s Ride the Eagle or his multiple collaborations with mumblecore prince Joe Swanberg.

To that end, Self Reliance also acts as Johnson’s directorial debut, and it’s these films that he seems to be pulling from the most acutely. Manifesting his learnings to the screen proves to have its ups and downs, having crafted a film with a clearly confident hand and a consistently pleasant sense of humor, but also one that fails to truly take advantage of the potential manic lunacy of its premise.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments. From its opening few minutes in which Andy Samberg (who also produced the film under the Lonely Island’s film banner and plays himself) dubiously courts Tommy to be a contestant to watching Tommy attempt to explain to his family why he needs to stay extremely close to them for 30 days, the concept initially seems to speak for itself in execution. Soon the game becomes perilously real and Tommy recruits homeless man James (Biff Wiff) to act as his shadow everywhere he goes. It’s a funny setup and only seems to be ramping up.

Alas, it’s at this point the narrative hits a wall and turns to grafting its distinct concept onto well-worn indie comedy tropes and platitudes. Where things feel like they should continue to get crazier, Johnson insists on keeping things too understated for their own good. The adherence to a sentimental theme about the necessity of connection and overcoming self-doubt makes things tepid and incongruous. The disjointed nature is no better represented than by Anna Kendrick’s character and her underdeveloped and abrupt relationship with Tommy as a fellow player of the game.

Johnson’s film is certainly not a complete failure but it is inelegant and shoddy despite its best attempts at charm and affecting thematics. It clicks intermittently and got some easy laughs out of me, but it’s disappointing for something potentially hilarious and cunning to end up feeling so lukewarm.

Self Reliance

Narrative Spotlight, World Premiere

Mon 13, 2pm, Alamo South Lamar B
Fri 17, 9:15pm, Zach Theatre

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